So one of the coolest moments in my existence was also the most awkward.
I met one of my childhood sports heroes. And I met him in the underwear sales section of a department store.
We’re going to need some context. And maybe a robe or something.
First, the who. The best pitcher in the history of baseball is Jim Palmer. He had 268 career wins, a lifetime ERA 0f 2.86, first ballot Hall-of-Famer with 92.6 percent of the vote, 6-time American League All-Star, four Gold Gloves, eight 20-game winning seasons, THREE time CY Young Award winner (finished second in the voting twice and third once as well), and THREE times a World Champion with the Baltimore Orioles.
The other who in this story is me, of course. Born in Maryland wearing an Orioles T-Shirt. It is a medical miracle to jump out of the womb wearing clothes. Superman had that famous red blanket he turned into his cape. My superpower was fandom. A gift of Orioles fandom handed down from my grandfather. I use my powers, primarily for good, unless it involves the Yankees. I get pretty nasty when the pinstripes of the evil empire are near.
Mr. Palmer made his Major League debut 10-days before my orange clad birth. We’ve been pals from afar ever since. Well, not much contact beyond that magical meeting, but I do get to see his broadcast work on television, via the the unique powers of satellite technology.
On a visit back to Maryland to visit family, I got to see him pitch at the venerable Memorial Stadium against the Bosox. My Birds lost 1-0, the only run a sacrifice fly by the Yaz, aka Carl Yastrzemski. Another weird day of no run support for the future Hall of Famer, but it was still glorious to see my pal pitching extremely well.
Our one and only meeting happened by chance. Pure luck. I was attending college classes in downtown Denver after some active duty time in the Marine Corps. I don’t recall the exact day, but it was a whirlwind of activity. I was standing in line for lunch on campus. I happened to be wearing an Orioles replica jersey, nylon with no number on the back, and honestly, not one of my favorite bits of Bird clothing.
Suddenly a voice from behind me said, “So, you going to the signing?”
I looked at this stranger and replied, “What signing?”
“Jim Palmer. Downtown.”
He glanced at his watch. About an hour. You better hurry, it is only supposed to last two hours.”
“Wow, I had no idea, thanks man!”
I sure should have known about it. There was little time to punish myself for ignorance, I had to hustle. Yes, I own a Jim Palmer rookie card, but no, it wasn’t on me. I probably should have done the Bob Costas thing and always had my favorite player card in my pocket all the time. Again, not much time to prepare.
Next up was skipping lunch and ditching my next two scheduled classes. That was an easy call. The next thing was walking about a mile downtown to the department store. The good thing about department stores in the 80’s is they had everything. I went to the sports department and bought a baseball.
I then asked the cashier where the signing was. It was not in the sports department. He handed me a flyer. It was a black and white photo of an athletic dude standing with just a smile and his underwear. Oh that. The Jockey underwear campaign. It was kind of a big deal for the time, the ad was in every magazine and on billboards everywhere.
Hey, the guy has got bills to pay, right?
I pushed beyond the inherent weirdness of walking around with a photo of a near naked man. Truth be told I ditched the flyer, I didn’t need that signed. I was on a greater mission.
I got upstairs, but could not get near the underwear department, the line went on as far as I could see into the men’s section of unmentionables. And the line was well over 100 women who were happy and giggling. There were a few of us male baseball fans, but it was clear we were out of our league.
Some of the women were dressed to the nines, they were going all out to meet my pal. I noticed a couple baseball fans about ten women behind me. A father and son going through a huge pile of baseball cards, deciding which ones to get signed. I politely asked the woman behind me if she could hold my place in line for a moment. She agreed, and I asked the tandem if I could buy a few baseball cards from them. All I had was three bucks, but they were cool, and gave me a few cards and essentially took the rest of my lunch money.
The line moved slowly, but eventually the world’s greatest pitcher came into view. I could tell, even for a fairly famous dude, the attention he was getting was a little overwhelming. How overwhelming? He was very happy to see me, even in the ugly nylon jersey.
And thank the heavens, to the disappoint of many of the women in line, they allowed him to be fully clothed for the promotion.
“An Orioles fan, then?” he checked.
“Born that way, Sir,” was my happy retort.
“It is really nice to see some actual baseball fans today.” He glanced left and right, and added, “Crazy, huh?”
“Very crazy,” I replied. “I don’t care that it took this particular campaign for a chance to meet you. Thanks for all the hard work and all the great wins.”
He signed the brand new baseball, and the random baseball cards.
“You’re welcome, have a good day,'” said my hero, Jim Palmer, best baseball pitcher, ever.
Good day? No Sir, it was great. It was one of the best days ever. There were fate questions that needed to be answered. Yes, I had a lot of non-Oriole clothing, but why was I wearing my jersey that day? Who was the mysterious stranger informing me of the signing? There are only about five O’s fans out here. How does an Orioles pitcher land in Colorado a mile from college?
Orioles Magic, maybe? Or underwear glory taken to new heights?
I’ll never have all of the answers, but I certainly realize it was the best day ever in the underwear department.